The disunity of science and the denial of climate change

You often hear individual scientists preaching about “how science works.”  While I think outreach is generally a good thing, I am not sure we should be trying to to fit all of science into one neat box.  What if there is no single way that science works?  What if the different areas of science “work” in really different ways?  And what happens when scientists pretend otherwise?

The evidence, I would say, is pretty clear on the first two questions.  Atomic physicists use precise, controlled experiments while geophysicists simply make observations.  My labmates and I often discussed that it isn’t possible to experiment with the coupled sun-Earth system.  Computer simulations are critical in many areas of theoretical physics but not widely used in ecology.  Double-blind testing make sense in medicine but not in the stability of bridges and so on and so forth.  Larry Laudan even came up with a fancy name to describe this methodological diversity: epistemic heterogeneity.*  Simply put, scientists use widely different approaches when attacking their research problems.  Well before Laudan, the 19th century philosopher Auguste Comte even wrote several volumes on the differences among scientific fields.

So clearly all of science does not follow the same rules, what some would call disunity.  But scientists promote the opposite notion when we speak of “the” scientific method and “the way” that science works.  I can’t shake the feeling that this disconnect has very serious ramifications.

Consider climate change denial.  Quite a few have documented how contrarian scientists undermined the scientific basis of climate change.  Skeptics’ success, however, ultimately depended on their credibility as “scientists” with the authority to speak for “science.”  At first glance there is no reason Frederick Seitz should be trusted to pontificate on global climate models.  But if a completely random assortment of scientists can lecture Congress on the workings of all of science, why can’t a completely random physicist comment on problems with global climate models?  In both cases scientists speak outside of their expertise.  It’s just that we like the outcome in the first example but not in the second.

In the end I think all scientists share some blame for the triumph of the climate deniers.  Over the past several hundred years we’ve done everything we can to create a unified image of science.  We’ve all bought into it and we all draw upon it to enhance our credibility.  We’ve all uttered nonsensical phrases like “replication is the ultimate test of truth in science.”  We’ve all debated science and values without bothering to really look at the evidence.  As much as I disagree with them, I have to admit the skeptics are simply following the rules I helped write.  I look back on the times my friends and I discussed “science.”  I wonder how I convinced myself I had the right to speak for a $500 billion, several million person institution.

To really mute the power of skeptics’ to speak for climate change, we must mute our own power to speak for the rest of science.  I think it’s a trade-off I think most scientists aren’t willing to make.

* See Larry Laudan, The demise of the demarcation problem, in Physics, philosophy and psychoanalysis: essays in honor of Adolf Grunbaum, 1983, D. Reidel publishing company, R.S. Cohen and L. Laudan (editors), pp. 111-127


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